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Monday, July 12, 2010
MEMRI: Internal Conflict in Lebanon Over Control of Oil and Gas Resources

MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis|624| July 12, 2010

Internal Conflict in Lebanon Over Control of Oil and Gas Resources
By: H. Varulkar*

The recent discovery of a large natural gas field off the Israeli coast,
near Haifa, sparked an intense conflict in Lebanon between the camps of
Prime Minster Sa'd Al-Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri an ally of
Hizbullah over the control of Lebanon's potential oil and natural gas
resources, which could generate enormous profits for the country.
At the same time, accusations began to be heard, especially from Hizbullah
and its political allies, that Israel is stealing Lebanon's natural
resources and that the gas reservoir it has discovered extends into
Lebanon's exclusive economic zone.[1] Senior officials from Hizbullah and
the opposition warned that the organization would not hesitate to use every
means, including its weapons, to defend Lebanon's natural riches. Figures in
the March 14 Forces stated in response that Hizbullah was simply looking for
another excuse to hold on to its arms.
It should be mentioned that, following the Israeli gas discovery, Lebanon
expedited the process of appealing to the U.N. to officially demarcate its
exclusive economic zone and to delineate its maritime borders with
neighboring countries, except for Israel.[2] The presidents of Syria and
Lebanon decided on June 15, 2010 that the two countries would begin
demarking the maritime border between them even before completing the
demarcation of the land border, in order to settle the question of their
respective rights to offshore oil and gas.[3]
Who Will Lead the Legislation of Lebanon's Natural Resources Bill?
A few days after Israel announced the discovery of an enormous gas reservoir
at the Leviathan drilling site off the Haifa coast, Lebanese Parliament
Speaker Nabih Berri launched an attack on Israel, accusing it of stealing
Lebanon's gas and oil deposits, and of ignoring the fact that the gas
reservoir extends into Lebanese waters. Berri stressed that "the discovery
of [this] gas reservoir obligates Lebanon to act quickly in defense of its
rights," and called on the Lebanese parliament and government to declare a
campaign of "economic resistance" in defense of the country's natural
Concurrently with the attack on Israel, Berri launched an attack on Lebanese
Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri and his government, whom he accused of
delaying the passage of a law to regulate the management and exploitation of
Lebanon's natural resources.[5] Moreover, Berri had his political advisor,
MP 'Ali Hassan Khalil, prepare a draft law on this issue and submit it to
the parliament.[6] This was seen as an attempt to circumvent the authority
of the government, which in March 2010 appointed a committee of ministers,
headed by Al-Hariri, to draft a natural resources bill.
These developments sparked a conflict lasting several weeks between
Al-Hariri's ministers and associates, on the one hand, who argued that the
government was the one that should lead the formulation of the law, and
Nabih Berri and his associates, on the other hand, who continued to accuse
the government of foot-dragging and even of promoting the interests of
Israel.[7] For example, Hizbullah's official in charge of South Lebanon,
Nabil Qaouq, said that that "the delay in ratifying the law... serves
Israel."[8] Some even claimed that the U.S. had instructed Al-Hariri to
delay the passage of the law.[9] After much mutual mud-flinging, it was
decided that Al-Hariri's committee would accelerate its deliberations and
submit its draft law to the parliament within two weeks, and the latter
would combine it with the proposal of MP Hassan Khalil.[10]
The Struggle between Al-Hariri and Berri over the Control of Lebanon's Oil
and Gas
Though superficially and on the rhetorical level, the struggle between
Al-Hariri and Berri revolves around the issue of who will draft the natural
resources bill, Lebanese dailies and analysts assessed that, in essence, it
is a struggle between political forces in Lebanon over future control of the
country's natural resources and drilling rights, which could generate huge
The daily Al-Diyar stated: "The political establishment has begun to take an
interest in Lebanon's natural resources, and to plan their distribution
among [the various forces]. Beneath the surface, there seems to be a
struggle between Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Sa'd
Al-Hariri over who will control the oil affairs..."[11]
Talal Salman, owner of the pro-Syrian Lebanese daily Al-Safir, wrote in a
more sarcastic vein: "The reaction of Lebanon's political leadership [to
Israel's gas discovery] was strange, worrying, and even suspicious! The top
officials started squabbling over the division of the loot believing that
they have the privilege to extract and exploit [the resources] before the
[purported oil and gas finds] were even 'in the bag.' As usual, they sought
to incite sectarian strife. [But] what sect do the sea and the waves belong
to? What is the religious affiliation of oil? Or the sectarian affiliation
of gas?
"Israel treated this wealth from the bottom of the sea as a matter of the
sovereign [state], and published charts showing the location of the find...
But in Lebanon this issue took on a completely different character [and
sparked an argument]: Is it the government who is responsible for [this]
future wealth... or the parliament, some of whose members have already
submitted [draft] laws on this issue?... Each side deployed its mouthpieces,
both oral and printed... and declared that it had been the first to think of
this matter and to initiate [legislation]. All this is happening when the
reports [about gas finds] come [only] from Israel, whereas in Lebanon nobody
has even conducted an initial exploration for this potential wealth, or
assessed [its extent]... It seems that Lebanon is ruled by a flawed and
corrupt leadership, and the citizens' blood is the cheapest commodity on the
Lebanese columnist Malek 'Aqil, who writes in Al-Safir and on the news
website www.lebanonfiles.com, wrote: "In practice, behind the intense
conflict among political forces over which authority should manage Lebanon's
oil and gas affairs, there lies an issue much more important than the legal
debate... A former [Lebanese] minister put it very simply, saying: ...What
we are facing here are preparations for the greatest division of capital
that the Lebanese regime has ever known throughout its history... Lebanon is
facing [the issue of] oil profits, [which will spark] a prolonged internal
struggle for control of [this resource]..."[13]
Websites affiliated with Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri or critical of the
Lebanese opposition contended that Nabih Berri was effectively trying to
take control of Lebanon's oil and gas affairs and to secure the future
profits for himself. The website www.metransparent.com, known for its
criticism of Hizbullah and its allies, reported that Berri's associates have
already started looking for companies to drill in Lebanese waters, and that
the companies chosen will be ones that agree to cooperate with the forces
controlling South Lebanon, namely Hizbullah. According to the website,
murmurs have begun to be heard in the country that "the oil of the South
belongs to the South," and that the forces controlling South Lebanon will be
the ones to manage any resources discovered. In fact, the website stated
that Nabih Berri wants these resources to be managed by the Council of the
South, controlled by his Amal movement.[14]
Participants in Lebanese internet forums voiced similar suspicions. A
participant in the official Al-Mustaqbal forum wrote: "[Berri's] plan is to
take personal control of all oil affairs... In other words, he... plans to
profit from this bounty and seize the revenues for himself and his
cronies..." Another participant wrote that Berri and his associates have
already "begun to rub their hands together in anticipation of stealing the
people's money," and that they will surely demand that all oil dealings be
managed by the Council of the South.[15]
Hizbullah and Its Allies: Hizbullah's Weapons Are the Means to Defend
Lebanon's Resources
The reports on Israel's gas find not only sparked a squabble for control of
Lebanon's resources, but also rekindled the years-long debate about the
legitimacy of Hizbullah's weapons. Hizbullah's leaders, its political
allies, and the papers associated with them accused Israel of stealing
Lebanon's resources, and argued that Hizbullah's weapons are the best means
to defend these resources. They stressed that Israel's discovery only
clarifies how important it is to let Hizbullah keep its arms, and promised
that the movement is poised to counter any hasty move on Israel's part.
Hizbullah Official: "The Resistance is Standing By to Repel any Foolish
Action the Enemy Government May Take"
On June 8, 2010, a few days after the discovery of the natural gas in
Israel, a front-page article appeared in Al-Safir under the headline "Israel
Planning to Steal Lebanon's Offshore Gas Fields." It said: "The Israelis are
ignoring the fact that the [Leviathan] gas reservoir stretches beyond the
approximate borders of their territorial waters and, according to their
[own] charts, extends into Lebanese waters something that presents Lebanon
with a new challenge and defines a new issue of contention..." The article
went on to claim that most of the drilling Israel had done in the Leviathan
reservoir had been off the Lebanese coast, and predicted that "the area will
soon become a new zone of conflict between Israel and Lebanon, [and] it can
be assumed that [the latter] will defend its rights at sea..."[16]
As mentioned above, similar claims were made by both Lebanese Parliament
Speaker Nabih Berri and senior Hizbullah officials. Hizbullah official in
the South Nabil Qaouq said Lebanon must "expedite drilling for oil, and
defend its rights against Israel's piracy." He added: "The neglect and
disregard of this matter are much more than a national error, as Israel is
posing a threat, and even demonstrating its hostile intentions, with the
hope of establishing facts on the ground..."[17]
Hizbullah deputy secretary-general Na'im Qassem declared that his
organization would defend the natural resources and oil fields discovered in
Lebanese waters, stating that "the resistance is standing by to repel any
foolish action the enemy government may take." According to Qassem, "Lebanon
has the right to assert its authority over its natural resources, and
Lebanon and its resistance [i.e. Hizbullah] have the right to defend those
resources by any and all means." He further warned Israel against "any
reckless move aimed at taking over Lebanon's [natural] resources."[18]
Hizbullah Executive Council chairman Hashem Safi Al-Din claimed that
"Lebanon's need for resistance has doubled in light of the Israeli threats
to plunder its oil resources," and therefore called upon the Lebanese people
to stick by the resistance. He added: "If we in Lebanon need hundreds and
thousands of missiles and [other military] capabilities in order to stand up
to enemy and to protect our sovereignty, honor, and waters, then in the
future the need to defend our oil resources will compel us to strengthen our
resistance capabilities [even further]. If it is true that Israel plans to
take over the oil estimated to be found in this region... it proves that
Lebanon needs the formula [comprising] the military, the people, and the
resistance in order to protect all of its capabilities and resources... All
the developments merely prove that the way of resistance is the right one,
and that there is no chance to ensure any rights or to deter the Israeli
enemy, other than through the power of blood, arms, and victory."[19]
Hizbullah's Allies: Hizbullah's Weapons Now More Crucial than Ever
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who over the last year has become a close ally
of Hizbullah and a keen supporter of the resistance against Israel,
addressed the issue at a dinner he held in his home in honor of the Syrian
ambassador to Lebanon. He emphasized the importance of keeping Hizbullah
armed, and of using this armament to full effect in defending Lebanon and
liberating its occupied lands: "Now more than ever, we understand the
importance of these arms in defending our national resources discovered at
sea. If we do not defend them, there is no doubt that the Zionist enemy will
steal them, just as it stole other resources, and just as I believe it is
stealing... the oil and gas off the Gaza coast."[20] Similar statements were
made by Nabil Nicolas, a Lebanese MP from the Change and Reform bloc headed
by Michel 'Aoun, in an interview for the Lebanese channel New TV.[21]
Youth and Sports Minister 'Ali 'Abdallah, of Nabih Berri's Development and
Liberation bloc, said: "We will not agree to disregard our rights [to our
natural resources], nor will we agree to any haggling over this issue of
sovereignty. We will lie in wait for the enemy, because the era of obedience
and submission is over. If need be, we will pay in blood..."[22] Qassem
Hashem, an MP from the same bloc, pointed out that the resistance was
Lebanon's source of power and that "only it is capable of restoring the
Lebanese occupied lands and of defending our oil resources."[23]
Al-Akhbar, which is aligned with Hizbullah, claimed that Lebanon needs to
employ a two-pronged strategy in countering Israel's threats against its
natural riches: First, it needs to begin drilling for oil and gas in its own
economic waters and harvesting its resources, even before the U.N.
determined the boundaries of its exclusive economic zone in the
Mediterranean, because Lebanon "does not have the luxury of waiting until
its rights are approved by international bodies..." Second, Lebanon "must
establish a clear link between its gas and oil drills and the capabilities
of the resistance [i.e. Hizbullah and its weapons]... [and make it clear]
that if Israel threatens Lebanon's drill sites, Lebanon can threaten
Israel's drill sites; and if Israel damages these sites, the resistance has
the capacity and the will to respond in kind..." The daily also stated that
as soon as insurance companies felt Israel's rigs face a clear and present
danger, such as the possibility of a military attack by Hizbullah, they
would refuse to insure Israeli drilling projects.[24]
March 14 Forces: Hizbullah Seeking another Excuse to Keep Its Weapons
These statements by Hizbullah and its allies aroused concerns within the
March 14 Forces. The Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai reported that this movement
"feared that the issue of the oil resources would replace or supplement the
issue of the Shab'a Farms, and be used by Hizbullah as another pretext for
keeping its weapons."[25] In fact, Hizbullah's leaders have already drawn a
parallel between the oil resources and the Shab'a Farms. Hizbullah official
in South Lebanon Nabil Qaouq stressed that "Lebanon has the right to defend
its national sovereignty and all the oil [fields] along its shores, just as
[it has the right to defend] every grain of soil of the Shab'a Farms..."[26]
The head of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea, expressed puzzlement at
the timing of the debate over the oil resources, and said that "some
[elements in Lebanon] are looking for [a] new Shab'a Farms..."[27] Another
member of his party, MP Antoine Zahra, stated that the issue of Lebanon's
offshore oil is just another item "in the endless list of excuses" meant to
justify the continued existence of Hizbullah's arsenal.[28]
Similar claims were made by Al-Hariri's Al-Mustaqbal movement. MP Riad
Rahhal of the Al-Mustaqbal party said: "Does [Hizbullah now] want to
transform from a military resistance [movement] into [a movement of]
economic resistance in the field of oil? Are they looking for another excuse
to hold on to [their] weapons, in case Israel decides to withdraw from [the
village of] Rajar [thereby removing one of their present excuses for
remaining armed]?"[29]
Another party member, MP Ziad Al-Qadri, accused Hizbullah of "trying to take
certain decisions regarding the resistance without consulting the other
forces [in the country]." He explained that "Hizbullah is trying to find
another function for its weapons one having to do with oil and is
therefore taking unilateral decisions on a crucial matter that impacts the
fate of the state, [which] is unacceptable..."[30]
The website www.metransparent.com, known for its criticism of Syria and
Hizbullah, likewise claimed that Berri had raised the oil issue in order to
"find a pretext for prolonging the conflict with Israel, [especially since]
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has announced that an initial agreement
has been reached regarding Israel's withdrawal from the Lebanese part of
Rajar village. [This] deprives Hizbullah of some of the cards it has been
playing [to justify] its continued armament, making it necessary to find a
new pretext..."[31] The site claimed that another reason for raising the
issue is Berri's desire to portray the March 14 Forces, represented by Prime
Minister S'ad Al-Hariri, as ignoring and even neglecting the rights of the
Lebanese people, in contrast to the opposition and resistance forces, which
are defending these rights.[32]
Lebanese journalist Maha Aoun wrote similarly: "The question being asked is:
Why all the fuss and feathers? Why all this noise, and [why] the rush to
prod the government into passing a law [regulating] gas and oil drills in
Lebanon's waters on the pretext of stopping Israeli piracy to the point
of accusing [the Lebanese government] of laxity and of neglecting its duty
to defend national resources?... The strange thing about this matter is the
surprising awakening of the Oil Minister [referring to Energy Minister
Jubran Basil, who belongs to the opposition] and of the entire March 8 bloc
[referring to the opposition forces], and the sudden beating of the war
drums with the aim of exploiting this issue politically. It seems that the
idea of exploiting [it] politically [came to their minds] since the issue of
the Shab'a Farms has exhausted itself, leaving no choice but to [find]
another pretext..."[33]

* H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[1] Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an exclusive
economic zone (EEZ) is a sea zone over which a state has "sovereign rights
for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the
natural resources... such as the production of energy." The EEZ stretches
200 nautical miles from the state's coast. If the waters of another country
lie within this range, the two can appeal to the U.N. for arbitration.
[2] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 3, 2010; Al-Nahar, Al-Safir (Lebanon), July 6,
[3] Al-Safir (Lebanon), Al-Hayat (London), June 16, 2010; Al-Safir
(Lebanon), July 5, 2010.
[4] www.march14.org, June 8, 2010; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 9, 10, 2010.
[5] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 10, 2010; Al-Safir (Lebanon), June 28,
[6] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 10, 2010.
[7] Al-Diyar (Lebanon), June 23, 26, 2010; Al-Safir (Lebanon), June 23, 28,
2010; www.alintiqad.com, June 24, 2010; Al-Ittihad (UAE), June 26, 2010;
Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 23, 26, 27, 28, 29, 2010.
[8] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 26, 2010.
[9] Al-Diyar (Lebanon), June 26, 2010; Al-Balad (Lebanon), July 2, 2010.
[10] Al-Mustaqbal, Al-Safir, Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 29, 2010.
[11] Al-Diyar (Lebanon), June 27, 2010.
[12] Al-Safir (Lebanon), June 28, 2010.
[13] www.lebanonfiles.com, June 28, 2010.
[14] www.metransparent.com, June 29, 2010.
[15] www.futuremovement.org/forum, June 22, 2010.
[16] Al-Safir (Lebanon), June 8, 2010.
[17] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), June 29, 2010.
[18] www.almanar.com.lb, June 29, 2010.
[19] www.almanar.com.lb, June 12, 2010. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 13,
[20] Al-Hayat (London), June 20, 2010.
[21] Al-Intiqad (Lebanon), June 26, 2010.
[22] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 28, 2010.
[23] www.moqawama.org, June 25, 2010.
[24] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 28, 2010.
[25] Al-Rai (Kuwait), June 26, 2010.
[26] SANA (Syria), June 25, 2010.
[27] Al-Safir (Lebanon), July 1, 2010.
[28] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 26, 2010.
[29] www.march14.org, June 26, 2010.
[30] www.psp.org.lb, July 1, 2010.
[31] In a June 24, 2010 interview for the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, U.N.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that the Israeli government had agreed to
his proposal to withdraw its troops from Rajar, and that he hoped the
withdrawal would be effected soon. www.naharnet.com, June 25, 2010.
[32] www.metransparent.com, June 29, 2010.
[33] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), June 30, 2010.

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